The truth about fame is that it’s determined by death. The death of Jean-Michel Basquiat has churned up a number of issues surrounding how the fame of a black person is challenged by a white society. It is important to discover why we have remembered arguably the most unique artist in a limited number of ways. It is true that fame is fleeting, though not after death, so why do the likes of Andy Warhol remain iconic, though his muses such as Basquiat come in and out of fashion like socks and sandals.
Jean-Michel Basquiat has been forgotten through time. The remnants of the cultural earthquake that he caused are now worth hundreds of dollars and branded under ‘Supreme’, or they have been taken by those who can afford his pieces and simply sell you glances. Basquiat was at the heart of change in both art and the world. His layed-back attitude and genuine carefree aura was and still is inspiring. His attitude towards sexuality appeared nonexistent, he had relationships with the likes of Madonna, but would also disappear for days with Puerto-Rican boys, and it appears that he never broke through the boundary between human emotional interaction and love.
Basquiat died in August 1988 after transforming the art world and dragging it into the desired modern world of equality and multiculturalism. The questions that I ask myself when I see how much Basquiat changed and inspired the world is, why isn’t he bigger? Why is the only time we see his face it’s printed onto to a t-shirt worn by a 14 year old in Yeezys carrying his dad’s wallet and his mum’s tube map? and most importantly: why did Andy Warhol and Keith Haring become the biggest names out of the trio?
I first started to ask these questions after reading ‘Widow Basquiat’ by Jennifer Clement. In the book (an exploration of his relationships and a collection of memoirs from his lover Suzanne) it describes how Basquiat used to eat at Mr Chow in Los Angeles, and he had a very good relationship with the owners who used to feed him as they had so much belief in him, and in the book it says how Basquiat used to exchange his work for food. However, I went to the same Mr Chow in LA for dinner in 2016, and I asked one of the waiters, “I understand that Jean-Michel Basquiat used to eat here in the 80s in exchange for artwork, I was wondering if you had any pieces hanging up anywhere or any photographs?”. Though, the waiter looked puzzled and signalled me to wait a moment. To my embarrassment he came back with a thick leaflet of all the celebrities that have eaten at Mr Chow, but no mention of Basquiat. I was puzzled as to why one of the biggest names in LA and New York at the time, hadn’t made it on the list. At the same time, I also believed that if Basquiat knew, he wouldn’t care. I also thought the same about Keith Haring, though I have the impression that Andy Warhol would have lost his shit; four times in four different colours. Maybe this is the reason that Basquiat isn’t remembered to the extent he should be; because it seems like he never really minded how people saw him.
In ‘Widow Basquiat’, the artist is portrayed as aloof and casual about that fact. Basquiat never developed his relationships after a point, and would often fall out with people not long after becoming friends. It seems like the artist wanted to keep his distance from people, from fame, and definitely from the media. He thought that the media wanted to pick on him and in interviews he speaks with an incredibly soft and childlike tone, and comes across timid. Whereas, Warhol clearly loved the fame and became and icon even when he was living. Though, Basquiat was never bothered by fame, and in my opinion it was because he always knew that he was going to be famous. At 15 the artist ran away from home, and when returned to his father he said, ‘Dad, I’m going to be very famous one day’. From a young age Jean-Michel knew that he was going to leave his mark on the art world and on society, though also knew that his effect would be partly blanketed on account of the colour of his skin.
Clement writes that Basquiat never really liked Keith Haring, despite their iconic public relationship, Basquiat did not respect how it was and had to be a white person to bring street art and graffiti into the public eye. Basquiat also believed that black people are not “portrayed realistically in art” and not “portrayed enough in modern art”, which is still true to this day. It’s clear that in the art world the talent of black artists is usurped by white dominance. This institutionalised racism intwined with Basquiat’s desire to stay out of the public eye for fear of being attacked is probably what has diminished his deserved memory in the world of art.
It was clear that Basquiat knew he was going to be famous, and when he was it didn’t really phase him, and so he may have shaped and manipulated his life and relationships just the way he wanted it to be; detaching himself from people to stop himself being harmed emotionally, taking drugs because he knew he could do what he wanted with his life, and painting because art was clearly the best expression of his unique and childlike mind. At the end of ‘Widow Basquiat’ it’s documented that Suzanne heard the buzzer for her apartment ring and so she opened the door for whoever was there, but when she went downstairs to see who it was, no one was there, and she believed that it was Jean-Michel ‘coming to say goodbye’. Basquiat then died a few days later from a heroin overdose, and it seems that he knew that this was how he was going to die. Basquiat made his life momentary but brilliant, much like his relationships. He would come into people’s lives, leave an emotional and incredibly memorable imprint and then leave. Which is exactly what he did with his life. He entered society, changed it for the better, opened up a new dimension to the art world, and then left. His fame remains dented by racism, but honoured by exclusivity and eccentricity. The world that he changed has encapsulated the ‘radiant child’ as a king without a head, but whose crown is worn by everyone who discovers him.